Trustees | Trusteeship

Pay to Play in Texas? Most Public University Regents Gave to Gov. Rick Perry’s Campaigns

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  April 7, 2010 by Paul Fain

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has received campaign donations from 63 percent of the regents he has appointed to public-university governing boards, according to a report released today by Texans for Public Justice.

The left-leaning government-watchdog group studied regents’ donations both before and after their appointments for its report. It found that Governor Perry, a Republican, has collected a total of $6.1-million from 97 of the 155 nonstudent board members he has appointed during his 10 years in office. The average campaign contribution by an appointee was $39,251.

Some regents gave more. Of the 16 people the governor has appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of Texas system, 13 donated to his campaign, at an average of $99,301.

The top giver identified by the study was Michele (Mica) McCutchen Mosbacher, a philanthropist who joined the board of the University of Houston system in 2008 and who has given a total of $440,400 to Mr. Perry’s campaigns.

It is neither surprising nor improper for gubernatorial appointees to public university boards to have ties to the governors who tap them for service. However, the high percentage of campaign donors among Texas regents, as well as the large dollar amounts they gave, raises questions about the boards’ political independence.

“Even in a state like Texas, this is big money,” said Craig L. McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. “It seems like the only qualification to be a regent is to give big money to the governor.”

Larry Keith Anders does not agree. The chairman of the Texas Tech University system’s board, Mr. Anders was the third biggest donor on the list, having given $348,171 to Governor Perry’s campaigns. While Mr. Anders said the board appointments are certainly political, he said the regents, all of whom are Texas Tech alumni, are encouraged to put the university’s interests before politics.

Mr. Anders, who is chairman of a Dallas financial-services firm, began giving money to Governor Perry before 2005, when his six-year term as a regent began. He said that the governor is interested in the university’s progress but that he leaves the decision making to regents.

“The governor does not meddle in the affairs of Texas Tech,” he said.

A spokeswoman in Mr. Perry’s office defended his track record with university boards, saying in a written statement that he “appoints individuals who share his conservative philosophy of government and can provide the appropriate oversight and leadership.”

Leaving Politics at the Door

Regents and system leaders with ties to Governor Perry have at times squared off with university presidents, resulting in several messy resignations. Those meltdowns have led to grumbling on campuses that the governor micromanages universities.

Mr. McDonald said his group decided to conduct the campaign-donation research after complaints emerged last fall about politicized board appointments at Texas Tech, where all but one of Mr. Perry’s 16 appointees have given to his campaigns. According to news reports, allies of the governor pressured two university regents to resign after they endorsed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful campaign to defeat him in the Republican gubernatorial primary last month.

“This is a pay-to-play state,” said Mr. McDonald.

Most governors have the power to name members to public-university boards. Other states select board members through elections, or a combination of gubernatorial appointments and elections. And a small group of states, including Minnesota and Virginia, lean on nonpartisan screening committees to choose board members.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges endorses the screening-committee approach. But Richard Novak, an expert on public-university governance at the association, said gubernatorial appointments can work well. The key, he said, is that governors choose quality candidates who prioritize the university’s needs.

“There’s nothing unseemly about it if there’s no quid pro quo,” he said, noting that board members should “check your politics at the door when you go into the board room.”

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said campaign donations should not disqualify someone from serving on a university board. Ms. Neal said it makes sense that Governor Perry has chosen regents with similar viewpoints.

“It’s natural that many of the appointees have supported the governor,” she said.


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